Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 23 September 2019

Book review: Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire – sprawling and ambitious but falls flat

Expert storytelling, lyricism and authenticity may well be at the centre of this warm-hearted tome, but it feels less than electrifying.
The 944-page book is published by Jonathan Cape.
The 944-page book is published by Jonathan Cape.

Is it just me, or have giant novels about New York City started to feel, in 2015, about as exciting and safe as yet another novel set on an English country estate or a post-apocalyptic wasteland (with or without zombies)? The New York City novel is now a genre and a very 20th century one at that.

From the wordy sprawl that tries to grapple with the outsized city, full of lyrical odes to electricity, man-made canyons, impossible wealth and decay; to all that blazing human energy, hope, hopelessness, love, passion, conspiracy, misery and crime. You get a novel full of disparate characters, rich and poor, a cross cut of ethnicities and sexualities that are eventually, inevitably woven together to reveal a tapestry as comfy and safe as a baby’s blanket. We’re all in this together. In other words, it’s the novel as a coping mechanism, similar to the ways in which religion can help one tie all the scary and messy bits of life into a semblance of order.

Garth Risk Hallberg’s debut, City on Fire, is the latest novel in this genre.

It is Manhattan writ large, of course. Huge, actually, at almost 1,000 pages. But City on Fire feels less like an explosive literary recreation of the city – see Don DeLillo’s Underworld – than something that would rather be the next great American TV series, such as The Wire.

The main action takes place in the mid-1970s, coming to a head around the citywide blackout of July 13, 1977. Hallberg’s 70s New York feels sourced from the cinema and punk music of that time period and, no doubt, from a tremendous amount of research. It’s entirely believable, the mask never slips and yet, it feels oddly flat. Even when writing about the energy, self-destruction and danger of the time, something about Hallberg’s well-adjusted and mannered literary prose never actually catches fire enough to make you encounter the time and place in a new way.

Hallberg is, in essence, a well-adjusted if not stodgily old-fashioned writer. (Fans of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch: you’re going to love this book.) He wants to be liked, and has a palpable generosity of spirit, a goodness. He slowly, expertly builds his story, switching gracefully between his characters and time periods, between lovingly recreated 70s punk fanzines and faux journalistic dispatches on the history of fireworks in America. The writing is never less than very good, and Hallberg’s expert use of non-­linear storytelling gives the story a smart, layering sense of surprise and interest that it might not otherwise have if reassembled from point A to point Z.

There are, of course, a lot of characters in City on Fire, all of them circling the mysterious New Year’s Eve shooting of “Sam”, Samantha Cicciaro, in Central Park. Sam is a punk Long Island teenager who is described, quite wonderfully, as having the “slouchy diffidence you sometimes see in wading birds before they’re startled into flight”. There is a crippled cop with one final case to solve. There is the mega-rich New York family with secrets to hide and discover, including the banished homosexual heir of the family, William, an ex-punk now living as an addict and artist, forsaking his fortune. Then there’s the cult-like group of terrorist punks proclaiming themselves the Post Humans, who become involved with both the mega-rich family and, quite possibly, Sam’s mysterious shooting.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. This is a New York City novel, after all. You get a bit of everything and, needless to say, it all comes together in a way you’ll either find incredibly satisfying or kind of infuriating. I suspect most readers who stick with this gigantic book until the end will not be disappointed.

But, for me, there’s a lack of real personality or eccentricity in Hallberg’s vision, and this might be the thing holding this good book from the greatness it so obviously aspires to.

A Hallberg character, no matter how well drawn – and they’re all extremely well-drawn – feels not like someone crazily real, or someone only he could have created. Say what you want about Jonathan Franzen, you know a Franzen character when you read one. Hallberg’s characters have yet to figure out how to totally jump off the page. The same goes for his New York, which feels more written than lived in.

For all of the book’s talk of punk rock and revolution, City on Fire is a heart-warming and sneakily conservative book at heart. And it’s that heart, I suspect, that will ultimately connect with a lot of readers.

This book is available on Amazon.

Tod Wodicka’s second novel The Household Spirit was published this year by Jonathan Cape. He lives in Berlin.


Updated: October 22, 2015 04:00 AM